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Just soso stories: Simon Montefiore examines the life of Josef 'Soso' Djugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin.


An assortment of new books mines history, the imagination and travel.

By Michael S. Gant and Richard von Busack

'Black Hole'
By Charles Burns; Pantheon; $17.95 paperback
A massive, beautiful and frightening graphic novel, previously anthologized over the course of nine years in Fantagraphics comics. The setting is a Cobainian northwestern landscape, sometime around 1975. An unnameable plague is striking the young on the fringes of a Seattle suburb, the result of a degenerative disease carried by sex and shared saliva. A circle of seemingly harmless "freaks"—as vegetating drug-takers of the time proudly called themselves—are here genuine mutants. A lion-faced creature called Dave is the most pitiable and the most dangerous; an artist called Eliza, who has a doglike tail, is so alluring that she'll probably create a new kind of fetish. But the worst creature lurking about is only glimpsed, not fully seen. Burns' usual blend of fantastic monstrosity and almost photorealistic high-contrast black-and-white figures and faces complement a memoir expertly mixed with magic-realist horror. Black Hole recalls the haunted evergreens in Lynch and the erotic deformity in Cronenberg. Certainly, fans of both film directors should read this. But the originality of this tale is rooted in the unbearably sharp feelings of adolescence. Seascape raptures are ruined by turds, bones, litter and broken glass. Vertiginous circles and jagged rents tear open the fabric of the ordinary world. But maybe the worst damage is caused by the adolescent delusion that a lover is actually a messiah.

Richard von Busack

'Young Stalin'
By Simon Sebag Montefiore; Knopf; 459 pages; $30 cloth
As Monty Python quipped, "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition." And just as unexpected are history's major monsters, from Genghis Khan to Hitler and Stalin. No amount of biographical detail can really account for the combination of "what ifs" that transform seemingly ordinary men into mass murderers, but we have to keep trying. Historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, who wrote Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, about Stalin's power years, takes a look at Uncle Joe's youth up to the Bolshevik revolution, with help from the recently declassified archives in the former Soviet Union. Born in Georgia in 1879, Josef "Soso" Djugashvili was rumored to be an illegitimate child, which is why his father, nicknamed Crazy Beso, often beat him; even his mother used her fists on him. But that was hardly out-of-the-ordinary parenting for late-19th-century Gori, a "liberated and violent place dominated by drinking, prayer and brawling." On these mean streets, Soso learned to assert his will with charismatic force. A stint in a seminary introduced him to radical thought; the students often hid copies of Marx in their bibles. Perversely, as Montefiore notes, the seminary "taught him exactly the repressive tactics ... that he would re-create in his Soviet police state." The young Stalin was an accomplished singer and wrote poems marked by "delicacy and purity of rhythm and language," but he also immersed himself in a roiling stew of socialist rebellion that included rampant assassinations and terrorist bombings. Stalin's life as a young revolutionary reads like a romantic epic (if only we didn't know how it ended). He organized daring bank robberies, outran the clutches of the police by donning clever disguises and seduced most of the women who crossed his path. He may even have been a double agent for the Tsar's secret police—although the evidence on that theory remains sketchy. Far from the mediocrity that Trotsky called him, in those early years Stalin was a ruthless, skilled revolutionary busy learning "the very skills that would prove invaluable in the political jungle of the Soviet Union." With hindsight, one can only wonder how and why Stalin escaped so many turning points at which he might have been deflected or killed—history is a cruel muse.

Michael S. Gant

'The Snake Stone'
By Jason Goodwin; Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 290 pages; cloth
A mystery novel ought to boast a watch-works plot, but sometimes a good setting can disguise a meandering story. Jason Goodwin, a Cambridge-trained scholar in Byzantine and Ottoman Empire history, has a great backdrop for The Snake Stone: Istanbul, circa 1830. In the second of Goodwin's Yashim Togalu mysteries (after The Janissary Tree), a French antiquarian's death ensnares court eunuch/gumshoe Yogalu in a plot that eventually takes him deep beneath Istanbul's crowded streets to the vaulted underground cisterns where the city's water supply courses out of sight and might conceal a fortune in Byzantine relics. One of the most compelling characters is the sinister head of the guild of water workers, who speculates on why Albanians control the reservoirs: "Is it because we come from the mountains that we understand the fall of water, and the measure of distances?" Yashim's approach to crime solving is not exactly Mike Hammeresque; he can be subtle to the point of distraction. "For every useful scrap of information, you must reject a hundred more," he explains. But the book sneaks in a lot of the city's tripartite history, from Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul. As anyone who has read Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk knows, Istanbul can be more mysterious than any murder, and Goodwin tours the city from the Golden Horn to Pera to the Greek village of Ortaköy to the Besiktas palace, where "the Shadow of God on Earth, Sultan Mahmut II," is slowly dying of tuberculosis, an event that signals major changes throughout a city facing the decline of empire and the onslaught of Western influence. And as befits most sleuths these days, Yashim is a gourmet cook and distracts the reader with tasty recipes; he even makes a simple sandwich with peppers, tomatoes, cheese and kirmizi biber (a dried red chile) sound irresistible.

Michael S. Gant

'Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer'
By Chuck Thompson; Holt Paperbacks; 324 pages; $15 paper
For a lad-mag editor, sports fan and denizen of libertarianism-crazed Alaska (a viable political theory, as long as there are a few new Alaskas lying around that we haven't discovered yet), Chuck Thompson is a complex fellow. What do you know? Travel broadened somebody for a change. (The preceding ad hominem put-down is payback for Thompson's characterization of all San Franciscans as crazy. First rule of travel writing: avoid the ad hominem.) This entertaining critique of travel writing includes Thompson's story of helming Travelocity magazine. Like most of his zillion competitors in the trade, Thompson's juiciest writing is about hellholes full of everything from Brazilian army ants to machete-wielding male Mindanaoites. He rerates the overrated, describing New Zealand as a varsity league version of the Pacific Northwest. And he writes with monkeyish pleasure of the busiest days in Olongapo, the zona rosa for the U.S. Navy port of Subic Bay in the Philippines, as well as with genuine disgust of the desperate, resortified Caribbean. Thompson ignores Lonely Planet's Eeyorelike warnings. Happily, he puts the onus of the squalor on international spoilers rather than on the wretched of the Earth. Who knows if he's right that the great age of jet travel may be finite? We might as well enjoy it, since Thompson assures us that the rest of the world can deal with Americans. If anything, we may be too cringingly sensitive: "Today's inbred terror of criticism based on cultural difference hamstrings all but the most fearless or pompous of modern American travelers," he wries. Perhaps the moral is that a bad vacation is made by what you bring with you: expectations, a sense of privilege and panic.

Richard von Busack

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